Ted Chiang, “Arrival,” Mormons, Science Fiction, Angels, Time Travel, Sex, Free Will, The Tower of Babel, and the Secular: A Roundtable

You probably heard of, and might have seen, last year’s Best Picture nominee Arrival. I did, and liked it, and so eventually picked up Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, the collection that features “Story of Your Life,” the short tale of alien contact and the ways in which it upends how humans think about language and time that the movie is based on. The collection’s other stories roam far beyond the hard sci-fi of Arrival: one, set in what appears to be roughly the same world as Disney’s Aladdin, explores the traditional problems of time travel (What if, like Marty McFly, you stop your parents from falling in love? That sort of thing, more or less) by insisting upon a sort of humanist determinism. We cannot change anything but ourselves, but over our own lives we have the powers of atonement and forgiveness. Another, “Tower of Babylon,” posits that the cosmology of the compositors of the Book of Genesis – a flat world encompassed by a firmament holding back great waters – is in fact correct, and examines how, given that world, the Tower of Babel might have worked. A third imagines a Victorian England in which Jewish gemetria, the mystical power embedded in the numerical value of letters, is a real force that might be industrialized. In short, Chiang’s work is simultaneously powerfully imaginative, in that he thinks through the logical ramifications of worldviews that we moderns have dismissed – and in some ways powerfully secular. There is little room for the mystical or the transcendent in his vision: in the story “Hell is the Absence of God,” which many of the below readers think through, God is simultaneously an empirical, demonstrable reality – angels regularly appear to humanity; souls ascending to Heaven are visible as they fly through the air; Hell can be perceived within the great cracks of the earth – and completely inscrutable, because his intentions, purposes, and the reasons he sends angels to proclaim his glory while simultaneously calling massive traffic accidents and the like are quite opaque.

In an odd way, Chiang’s world bears some resemblance and some divergence to that of Mormonism: his cosmos is rational, which many defenders of Mormonism assert is a great virtue of their own theology, but also a-modern, defiant against the colonizing power of the ways we think we know the world works. Mormons believe that God is discoverable; Mormons would recoil, though, at this God’s resistance to interpretation.

Given these provocations, I asked some smart people to read the book and think through some of these ideas out loud. Below are their reactions.

Xarissa Holdaway
Every Ted Chiang story hurts my head in a new way. They reach a point, three quarters of the way through or so, where a vegetable growing upside down from above the sun seems not only normal, but something you should have been seeing all along.

I saw “Arrival” before I read “Stories of Your Life and Others.” The best of the movie’s additions was the way that, as the researchers enter the alien ship, they go through a passage where gravity first disappears, then pulls them back to the floor in a different direction. Although there are no ships in Chiang’s story, just a two-way screen, it’s a perfect visualization of the way that you’re supposed to feel the floor, or other things, move around you as you read. In ‘Tower of Babylon,’ Hillalum, “for the first time, knew night for what it was: the shadow of the earth itself, cast against the sky.”

Chiang’s science fiction doesn’t try to imagine a new world. Rather, science, magic, and religion bring the reader right back to this one, as symbols of the terminal flummoxing of being alive. Angelic visitations in ‘Hell Is the Absence of God’ are as likely to kill you as save you, and the heptapods’ great gift in ‘Story of Your Life’ is the idea that you could know the entire script of your future and serenely participate no matter how bleak your fate. Here, climbing the Tower of Babylon is just a few centuries of wasted effort. Free will may not exist, and might not help you even if it does.

It’s delightful, even oddly comforting, to read a book that’s so cavalier with outcomes. Despite the word-magic and benevolent alien visitors, no one’s really all that much better –or worse– off. Forget escapism. This book puts you right back where you always were, but this time nothing looks the same.

Deborah Pettit
Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon” takes you deep into the nitty-gritty of the famed Tower of Babel, into marvels of farming high miles above the earth, altitude-altered views of stars and sunsets, and the precise technology the builders use to break through into the vault of heaven. It is through the concreteness of these details that we glimpse the sheer force of human ambition in the project and even the beauty of their vision. In this version, the builders’ moral failing is not pride so much as optimism in human progress, the belief that the ingenuity that created an unparalleled feat of engineering can transfer to an ascent to heaven. In the end they find not a vengeful God, but instead that the world is quite literally not shaped as they had imagined. Their positivism is not condemned, but simply futile, at least in its original intent: God never appears. Rather, the miracle is being able to glimpse an inscrutable God’s ingenuity.

From the scant verses in Genesis, Chiang remakes the story and its moral. It is unexpected and therefore fresh, a reminder that the lacunae in the narrative are open to interpretation. Through a skillful retelling the work endures for yet another rereading. The original, lacking details regarding the technology and motivation of the builders, precisely because of this vagueness has space for such a version. The familiar is a fertile ground for the new, a reminder of the worlds contained within scripture. Conversely, we Mormons have a penchant for filtering scripture reading through the Sunday School manuals, recycled every four years. In the current curriculum, the Tower of Babel is reduced to two bullet points. The scriptures are rich and complex enough to merit meaningful study as they currently stand, but maybe Chiang is onto something here in terms of making scriptures come alive to new audiences. Writing fiction is an act of creation, but perhaps it can also be one of devotion.

Arwen Taylor
Both “Story of Your Life” and “Hell is the Absence of God” work through related concerns about knowledge, perception, agency, and truth, etc., toward different conclusions about desire and purpose—though they end up in very different places I might still call something-like mystical. In “Story,” language and knowledge are linked in the inverse of the normal human way: you don’t use language to express what you already know; you learn to know differently by using language to express it. And that expansion of your knowledge not through space but through time re-shapes, in turn, your desire. That is, Louise, finds not only that her sense of herself as a subject making choices is submerged in her perception of events as inevitable, but that her desire also becomes perfectly aligned with that inevitability. Once she knows the future, she “would never act contrary to that future”; her desire is to buy the salad bowl, have the conversations, marry the man and raise the child that she knows are inevitable.

“Story” doesn’t explicitly invoke God, but of course one can draw parallels: this is what it might look like for a theological subject to align her will perfectly with God’s while still experiencing life as deeply meaningful even without choices. In “Hell is the Absence of God,” the human will is a much bigger problem—as is the God. Chiang imagines a world where certain questions are settled: God is real, angels are real, miracles are real, you can see into Hell or watch a soul ascend to Heaven. But it turns out that settling those questions only underscores the degree to which we still have no answers. The knowledge that God is real doesn’t entail information about God’s purposes or character or the reasoning behind his actions. And the love of God seems not to be (or not reliably) a matter of will or choice; Neil can’t make himself love God, which is why he finally goes to extremes trying to be forced into loving him. And when he finally achieves that love, with its attendant knowledge of God’s indifference, his will and desires are overwhelmed much as Louise’s were, only for him, his re-shaped desire is toward something utterly purposeless. We find that absolute love, stripping away all other desires and demanding no reciprocity or purpose, is Hell.

Adam Miller
Doing theology is a lot like writing science fiction. Both “fling some ingenious mock sensorium out into the cosmos so that it can report back what it finds there.”[1] Ted Chiang’s short story “Hell Is the Absence of God” is both: a bit of theology dressed up as science fiction.

In “Hell Is the Absence of God,” Chiang posits a world where angelic visits are common and are reported like the weather on the nightly news. More, in this world, life after death is demonstrable, heaven’s reality is well attested, and hell is literally visible. Hell manifested itself “on a regular basis; the ground seemed to become transparent, and you could see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the floor” (209). On top of all this, God’s own existence is not in doubt. The basic outlines of Western monotheism are an uncontested fact.

What difference does this make?

Well, it gives the world’s governing, theological frame a kind of clarity and definition that our world lacks. But, Chiang suggests, it doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. For the most part, people are still people. Even knowing what they know, some are religious, some are indifferent, some are distracted, and some are rebellious. People are still busy working, shopping for food, mowing the lawn, falling in love, having children, and mourning the loss of loved ones. People are still preoccupied with themselves and they’re still firmly rooted in the very local troubles and pleasures of life.

In other words, even with angels flying around and windows regularly opening onto hell, the world is basically the same.

My gut says that Chiang is right about this. Definitive revelations of a supernatural order would cause an initial stir, but in short order people would digest the news and go back to the business of living their ordinary lives.

This got me thinking about the Book of Mormon. But what would change if we could prove that an angel delivered the book and that its contents were historical? What would be different if the book weren’t so plainly implausible?

I expect, very little. People would absorb the news and then go back to the business of feeding the baby, walking the dog, and finding something to watch on Netflix.

Does this mean that people are, in general, irredeemably hard-hearted and stiff-necked, congenitally indifferent to the miraculous?

Maybe. But even if we are, I don’t think that’s our main problem. Our absorption in the ordinary isn’t, in itself, a way of avoiding what’s at stake in religion. Rather, I think that it’s an indication of where all the real religious action takes place. It’s an indication of where the real drama of life and salvation unfolds.

Even if I could see Hell through the tile of my kitchen floor, even if I had authenticated video of Moroni delivering the plates to Joseph Smith, all of my basic problems would remain same: I’d still have to decide what to do about it. I’d still have to figure out how to live. And those decisions can’t be made by anyone but me, on the ground, in real time, as I handle the most ordinary troubles and pleasures of life.

Joe Spencer

We’re too easily convinced that the question of God amounts to a question about existence. What must be decided, we think, is whether it’s right to believe in God. But Ted Chiang’s short story “Hell Is the Absence of God” wishes to teach us that we’re wrong to think we know what the religious question really is.

Chiang imagines our modern world, with off-road vehicles and insurance companies and self-help groups, as if it were the sort of enchanted place we associate with premodern worldviews. Supernatural events aren’t exactly everyday experiences there, but they’re well-established facts that nobody doubts. There are holy sites and pilgrims, and those graced by divine encounters acquire an aura that makes them objects of veneration. Visions occur with some regularity, and death is followed by a fully visible ascension or descent of the soul of the deceased to heaven or hell. What happens in such a world is that religiosity becomes a matter of devotion or love, rather than a matter of belief. Where everyone knows that God exists, the existential question posed by religion is divorced from cognitive assent.

In a certain way, then, Chiang’s story attempts a diagnosis of our secular age. Charles Taylor argues that the rise of secularism amounts to a change in the conditions of religious belief. Where once there lacked the conditions necessary to opt out of belief in the divine, religious belief is now only one option among many, and it’s unclear to an increasing number of people why this particular option should be regarded as appealing. Chiang goes further than Taylor, however, because he recognizes that such a change is possible only if the very idea of religiosity has been redefined. With the rise of secularism, religiosity becomes a matter of belief for the first time. Before, it was a matter of devotion. Now, it’s a matter of belief.

These are important matters for anyone committed to the Book of Mormon, which explicitly presents itself as a divinely orchestrated response to latter-day secularism. What’s interesting, though, is that the Book of Mormon neither argues for a return to a premodern situation where belief is the only option nor demands that modern religion be refocused on devotion. It would seem that it wishes to convince us that Chiang himself isn’t sure of what the religious question really is. The Book of Mormon, it seems to me, emphatically calls for a sustained rereading of the Christian Bible and for consequent faith in a fully intelligible plan for history. That is, the Book of Mormon asks its readers to resist secularism, but principally because secularism might lead them to think that God will not follow up on his covenantal intentions with the house of Israel.

In the end, what leaves me cold about Chiang’s story, speaking as a Mormon, is that its God is as inscrutable as the God worshiped in Taylor’s premodern era. Chiang’s God seems resolutely Jewish (angels in the story have decidedly Hebraic names, but there’s no hint of Christological theology in its portrayal of God). And yet there’s nothing there of the Jewish story of God’s interactions in history. On this score, from a Book of Mormon perspective, Chiang plays into secularism’s hand, even as he rightly contests important features of secularism’s self-understanding.

Allison Pond

Thought experiment: If there were a painless, non-invasive surgery that could rewire your brain such that you would no longer have an emotional or aesthetic reaction to faces that were more beautiful or less beautiful than others, would you get it? Would you want others in your community to get it?

That’s the question in Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” the story of a fictional college campus of the future publicly debating whether to require all students to adopt calliagnoisa, or calli, in a bid to defeat “lookism” — prejudice and discrimination based on physical appearance.

One student whose parents chose calli for her as a child tells the camera, “My friends and I used to watch movies and try to figure out who was really good-looking and who wasn’t. We’d say we could tell, but we couldn’t really. We were just going by who was the main character.” How many of us who grew up in sheltered homes pretended things? I pretended to know things about pop culture, things about about sex; I pretended to have done more things that I had really done. Chiang’s calli kids resented their parents for not letting them see the real world. I get that.

I will also admit that sometimes as I’m straightening my hair or putting on mascara, I look at my reflection and feel enslaved. How many hours have I spent altering my appearance in my lifetime? What if I’d used that time to learn to play the guitar or speak another language? My first, gut reaction to whether I would get calli was yes — I’d free myself from the madness, the pressure, the self-consciousness.

And yet — I don’t want to be protected anymore. Maybe it’s because I was so protected that I wanted to bite the apple, to have my eyes opened, to see and experience the world as it really is, painful or distracting or beautiful or, heaven forbid, arousing. I want to feel and understand it all.

Some arguments on both sides of the calli debate in Chiang’s story are feminist in nature. On one hand: Adopting calli would create an environment free from the dystopia of manipulative advertisers objectifying human bodies to sell more makeup and cosmetic surgeries. (cf: Miss Representation) On the other: calli is just another form of sexual subjugation by a patriarchal society that shames women for feeling pleasure or power in their bodies. Education, not forced blindness, is the answer.

At times, Chiang’s story is reminiscent of discussions of modesty in LDS culture. Do dress and grooming standards protect people, freeing them from a degrading and objectifying culture — or do they suppress their self-expression, stunt their appreciation of beauty, and shame and objectify them in a different way?

It’s perhaps not surprising that the religious actors in Chiang’s story choose calli for their children to make them more resistant to the “charms of outsiders.” But Chiang also invokes an age-old theological discussion of the relationship between the body and the soul — specifically, the religious impulse to control and discipline the flesh (i.e., the “natural man”) in order to achieve enlightenment:

“This debate isn’t just about commercials and cosmetics, it’s about determining what’s the appropriate relationship between the mind and the body. Are we more fully realized when we minimize the physical part of our natures? And that, you have to agree, is a profound question.”

 

[1] Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 220.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    A fascinating roundtable. Thanks for orchestrating it, Matt.

  2. orangganjil says:

    I greatly enjoy Chiang’s stories and found these reactions to be fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I really like Chiang’s stories. “Story of Your Life” is one of my favorite short stories ever, and I think is my husband’s favorite story ever (although we haven’t seen Arrival yet).

    I remember having a viscerally negative reaction to “Hell is the Absence of God,” because it just flew so far in the face of everything I believe about God, even things that I didn’t even realize I believed but had just internalized. When I was able to think about it a little more rationally, I really admired what he was doing. And I agree with Arwen although I would not have been able to articulate it nearly this well: “We find that absolute love, stripping away all other desires and demanding no reciprocity or purpose, is Hell.” That’s really interesting, right? We talk so much about absolute love as the crowning principle of the gospel — but implicit in all our discussions is that we believe strongly and absolutely that this love is purposeful and knowable (by “knowable” I mean that we can come to know our Heavenly Parents in a way that isn’t possible for the God in Chiang’s story).

    I had a similar (though not nearly as strong) visceral reaction to Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy book The Curse of Chalion, because it posits a rather-well-thought-through fantasy religion that isn’t mainstream Christianity or Mormonism (and like “Hell” there is actual evidence of Gods, but it doesn’t really change all that much about how people operate and have religious questions and struggles), and apparently there are deep parts of my brain that don’t know what to do with that — but it’s one of my favorite books now. I’d love to see what commenters had to say about that book.

  4. Great fun, Matt. Thanks.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Agreed, and thoughtful and enjoyable read. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for the commentary. Science fiction does seem like a way to do theology without the weight of “true or not.” Now I want to read, and (of course) find that my copy’s been on the to-read shelf since January.

  7. That was terrifically interesting. Now I must read Chiang’s book.

  8. Thanks to all. This was thought-provoking.

  9. Mike W. says:

    My post-Mormon brother gifted me this book. The author is an atheist. And I really enjoyed the book. I just find it interesting that people with such different religious takes can find pleasure and insight from Mr. Chiang’s stories. I wish he would spend less time pumping out software manuals and more time writing stories.

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